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American Democracy Needs a Face-lift this Fourth of July

Fireworks explode over the United States Capitol dome and Washington Monument on Independence Day in Washington, July 4, 2009.

So here we are on the Fourth of July 2014 and American democracy is looking about as unappetizing as raw hamburger meat that’s been left sitting in the hot sun all afternoon. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that Americans think the President is the worst president since World War II. That would be alarming except that, in the same poll, they think his immediate predecessor was awful as well. In fact, about the same number think Bush was worse than Obama as think Obama was worse than Bush. And lest we think all the unhappiness is with Presidents past and present, Americans have an even lower opinion of Congress. The approval rating for Congress doesn't get close to 20% in any of the polls in the summer. Not even the Supreme Court escapes criticism, its ratings are the lowest in four decades. To add insult to injury, we are in the middle of a primary election season and practically no one is bothering to vote. Not that this is new, no one ever votes in primaries, but it does give a new meaning to the term “chutzpah.” Americans love to complain about the lousy choices they are served up in November even though 80% or more of them fail to participate in choosing the parties’ standard bearers. And then there are the billionaires, spending their money on campaigns through an elaborate network of front organizations that would make the head of your average drug kingpin spin.

And so, on the eve of America’s 238th birthday, it’s not surprising that, as a recent columnist pointed out, Americans trust total strangers to sleep on their sofas more than they trust the government! Into this summer of our discontent comes the Bipartisan Policy Center with a 100+ page report titled “Governing in a Polarized America.” The report is divided into three sections. The first focuses on our electoral system in an effort to promote “impartiality and fairness.” The second focuses on Congress, the real bad apple in a rotten barrel, in an attempt to “promote greater communication, information-sharing, and civility...” And the third focuses on us, the citizens, and is geared towards “reinforcing the notion that, as Americans, we are all part of a common enterprise that requires a lifetime of civic engagement.”

The saddest section is the one on Congress. Not because the recommendations are not good. But because they include things like “Members must devote more quality time and attention to their policy duties on a few committees.” And “The President should hold regular monthly meetings with congressional leaders…” The whole section is a reminder of just how dysfunctional Congress has become and how great the distance between the President and Congress has grown.

The most idealistic section is the section on the citizens. It is a combination of hope that the educational system can do a better job of making better citizens—I, for one, would be happy if the educational system could just teach math—and a hodgepodge of small-bore ideas about the civil service and political appointments.

Many of the recommendations in the report have been around for awhile and some, like the millionth call for a system of national service, are sprouting gray hairs. But in the final section on electoral reform one big new idea pops out. That idea is a national congressional primary day in June of midterm election years. (Full disclosure, I’ve been working on a paper with the same idea for Brookings.) For me the attractiveness of this idea is that when democracy is in trouble the best solution is probably more democracy. And the most troubled part of our troubled democracy these days is the extremely small number of people who bother to vote in primaries for Congress. The primary elections going on this summer are sleepy, obscure affairs—guaranteed to re-nominate the incumbent, regardless of his or her accomplishments, or provide an opening for a small, intense group of ideologues. The last time we had primaries in a mid-term election year, 2010, some of these sleepy elections were captured by an upstart group known as the Tea Party.This year, millions of dollars are being spent by the Republican establishment to make sure that that doesn’t happen again. And with the sole exception of Eric Cantor’s defeat to a Tea Party candidate in Virginia—it hasn’t.

But given the overall state of American democracy on this July 4th, both America’s political parties could use a robust, internal debate. Yet the fact that congressional primaries are spread out across seven months on eighteen different days, means that no one even knows they are happening, no one knows what the issues are and practically no one turns out to vote. A national primary day would spur discussion about the future of both political parties, it would grab the attention of the press, the parties, and the interest groups aligned with the parties and most importantly the voters. A national primary day might just get the voters back into the practice of democracy once again. And that would make Thomas Jefferson proud.

  • Elaine C. Kamarck is a senior fellow in the Governance Studies program at Brookings and the Founding Director of the Center for Effective Public Management. She is also senior editor of FixGov, a blog focused on discussing domestic political and governance challenges and realistic solutions. She is a public sector scholar with wide experience in government, academia and politics. Kamarck is an expert on government innovation and reform in the United States, OECD countries and developing countries.  In addition, she also focuses her research on the presidential nomination system and American politics and has worked in many American presidential campaigns. In the 1980s, she helped to found the “New Democrat” movement that resulted in the presidency of Bill Clinton.

    As a senior staffer in the White House she created the National Performance Review, the largest government reform effort in the last half of the twentieth century. After the White House, she spent fifteen years at Harvard University teaching government management and American politics.   She is the author of How Change Happens—Or Doesn’t: The Politics of U.S. Public Policy (Lynne Rienner, 2013), which explores transformative changes in the space where politics and policy overlap and asks why some policies succeed and others fail. Her most recent book on politics is Primary Politics: How Presidential Candidates Have Shaped the Modern Nominating System and her most recent book on government organization is The End of Government As we Know it: Making Public Policy Work.

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